Opinion by Thornton May

2017 will be a bad year for pessimists

Executives see a lot to be hopeful for in the coming year

glass half full
Credit: Jamie Eckle

I think that we can all agree that the 2016 presidential election cycle was brutal, an overwhelmingly negative attack on the attention spans of the global population. Call me a delusional optimist, but I forecast that despite all the sturm und drang of 2016, 2017 is going to be a bad year for pessimists.  

One reason that I conclude that things are going to improve is that society may have passed peak negativity in 2016. Peak oil, says Wikipedia, is “that point in time when the maximum rate of extraction of petroleum is reached, after which it is expected to enter terminal decline.” And, at least in the circles I run in, we are running out of negativity. More precisely — since even a chronic optimist will admit that we may never totally run out of negativity — we are suffering from negativity fatigue. 

I spent most of 2016 talking to executives with the word “chief” in their titles about what to expect in the near future. They pretty much agreed with Franklin Roosevelt, who said in his first inaugural address that “only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.” The inhabitants of the C suite tend to be realists, and they recognize that there are a lot of things that need fixing. But they are also confident that we have the tools to do that. Here are some of the things that these executives are optimistic about for 2017. 

The end of demographic stereotyping

Millennials will come into their own in 2017. For the past decade, millennials have been on the minds of senior executives in every vertical market and discipline. We’ve seen a cottage industry set up to explain how millennials aren’t like anyone else, but the commentators often seem intent on stoking baby boomer generational anxiety. The truest observation is probably that what makes millennials unique is that no other demographic cohort has inspired so much misinformation. In fact, millennials are no less understandable, manageable and leadable than any other cohort in the history of man.  

What do we know about millennials? There are a lot of them. While the demographic line regarding millennials is less than precise, there is general agreement that millennials were born between 1980 and the mid-1990s. That translates to some 76 million millennials in the U.S., accounting for a full third of the workforce. By the time the next election comes around, they will make up half of the U.S. workforce. Most millennials want career progression, seek competitive wages and financial incentives, and prefer working at enterprises committed to training and development. Does that sound weird to you? 

In the recruiting business, there is a rule of thumb: “Millennials are not that hard to attract, but they are hard to retain.” It is true that 70% of millennials, embracing the mantra “Work doesn’t have to suck,” leave their first job after two years. But that seems like a sensible motto to me.

Millennials do set themselves apart from earlier generations in the extent to which technology plays a major role in their identity. They tend to insist on the right to self-provision. This is a feature, not a bug. Wow, a generation that wants to use tech to get work done? Some of us remember having to beg employees to put their hands on keyboards. 

YouTube University and the democratization of knowledge

Everyone talks about the skills shortage, but is that really the problem? What if what is seen as a skills shortage is actually a result of employers’ addiction to Industrial Age work credentials such as college degrees and work experience? Autodidacts have discovered the power of “YouTube University,” but employers have been slow to recognize the potential. Workers wanting to learn a new skill or to pivot or accelerate their career can spend hours searching YouTube and engaging in various social media communities to develop competencies. It has never been cheaper or easier to learn new skills. 

Instrumented shame campaigns

Optimism extends beyond the executives I talked to. The Dalai Lama is also upbeat about the future. The Tibetan spiritual leader is heartened by the emergence of global consensus on climate goals enshrined in the Paris accord on climate change, as well as by the emerging ability to measure the willingness of nations and politicians to get along with one another. In the future, it is more likely that people not able to play well with others will be punished politically and corporations that do wrong will be punished commercially. 

HR becomes strategic

Historically HR was viewed as part of the problem. In 2017 and beyond, it is going to be part of the solution.

The “problem” is workplace dysfunction. According to Cy Wakeman, a therapist-turned-HR-guru and author of Reality-Based Leadership: Ditch the Drama, Restore Sanity to the Workplace & Turn Excuses Into Results, the average worker loses two and a quarter hours every day on the wasted emotional energy of workplace “drama.” Lynne Zappone, chief people officer at Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, frequently tells colleagues that a communications “canyon” exists between the CEO, line managers, employees and the chief HR officer. 

The good news is that via informed and courageous HR leadership, workplace drama can be significantly reduced and communication canyons bridged. Back in 2002, Christopher A. Bartlett and Sumantra Ghoshal told the world that strategy — typically focused on products and competitors — had shifted to talents and dreams. The HR leader, historically occupying the lowest rung of the senior management hierarchy, is about to step up.

Futurist Thornton A. May is a speaker, educator and adviser and the author of The New Know: Innovation Powered by Analytics. Visit his website at thorntonamay.com, and contact him at thornton@thorntonamay.com.

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